While it is now common knowledge among palliative care folks that the word “palliative” derives from “palliare” or “cloak,” I had not realised that its origins are the wool pallium worn by ancient philosophers, and that the Christian tradition of the papal pallium derives from St. Martin cutting his cloak in half with his sword and giving it to the naked beggar by the roadside.
Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said at a Vatican conference on palliative care last week, “when Saint Martin donated his cloak, it was cold, it was the winter, but for the poor person he gave it to, it was spring, because he was surrounded by love and tenderness. Palliative care will help the world find a new spring.”
A commercial culture that is militantly “anti-ageing” and ageist must also be anti-dying, which in these high tech times is undignified, inconvenient and burdensome to both the patient and caregivers. Being anti-dying is not the same as being anti-death though, as the “death with dignity” folks are instructing us. Individual patients’ refusal or unwillingness to tolerate the prolonged dying characteristic of modernity directly reflects the institutional deficits of health systems’ inability to care for them in a way that aligns with their individualistic values.
Healthcare systems designed to care for patients suffering from traumatic injuries, infectious diseases, and conditions requiring surgery and intensive care are now being overwhelmed by growing numbers of older persons suffering from multiple chronic conditions that persist for years, if not decades. Rather than fall through the multiplying cracks, many of these folks would rather physicians spared them the harrowing journey by hastening their deaths.
The medical community is well and truly split over whether the state should regulate healthcare professional participation in suicide. The organised palliative care movement largely recommends governments ensure that that palliative care is widely available before authorising physician assisted suicide.
But it is not in palliative care’s nature to be oppositional, and providers are challenged even to think politically. Few palliative care organisations are mobilising against the self-appointed “death with dignity” movement, despite the fact that assisted dying is cheaper than palliative care and will put a damper on public investment and research funding. Palliative care can’t insist that policymakers force patients to survive within inhospitable modern healthcare systems, least of all in secular societies that no longer ground the value of the human person in a collective concept of the sacred. The most palliative care can hope to do is witness, through a sustainable ethos and praxis, to an alternative life- and person-oriented set of values. Witnessing does not make for aggressive politicking.
The fact is that the palliative care and assisted suicide movements developed in response to the very same profit-oriented, over-medicalised disease-centred health care system. Palliative care just hasn’t developed fast enough to mitigate patients’ perfectly understandable desire to check out as soon and as painlessly as possible. The absence of a political analysis in the palliative care movement, does not obviate the fact that deriving a generalised legal norm of killing from the compelling individual cases of patients in extreme distress who want to exercise their ‘right’ to autonomy and a medically assisted death, institutionalises the original system deficits that inspired the initial decision to suicide. Assisted suicide policies masquerade as “compassionate choices” for individuals, yet actually institutionalise rules of indifference to families and communities who struggle with inappropriate care.
Normalising physician assisted suicide through legal regulation, de facto ratifies modern individualist ideologies, system failures and the family/community disintegration characteristic of globalised neoliberal societies. Rather than a epitomising an evolutionary success story, “Dignity in Dying” memorialises the catastrophic failure of modernity to include the marginalised and undignified in its many success stories. Citizens who would rather die deny the irreducible relationally of the world: they refuse their fellows’ claims, opting out, rather than “staying” to ensure a common salvation [etym “salve” or healing] through more human social and health policies. GK Chesterton nails it when he writes in The Flag of the World, “The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world. The suicide […] insults every flower by refusing to live for its sake” — born of ego and pride, an over-emphasis on self rather than the rest of reality.”
Tragically, this secular culture of death, like a plague of ticks, has already burrowed too deep into decadent, superficially successful societies of the strong, those who have had their day in the sun. The individuals who request others to assist their suicide are guilty only of personalising the normative nihilism that characterises western modernity.
Palliative care, the “slow medicine” that helps patients and families faced with terminal illnesses live with acceptable quality until natural death, even in the teeth of great pain and distress, is the quintessential medicine of the weak, the medicine that will leave no one behind, to steal the tag line of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It occupies the in-between spaces abandoned by the power of the state and medical professionals so consumed by the power to cure, they perceive their inability to ensure patient immortality as permission to kill.